Gentlemen and Ladies Will Prefer Megan Hilty
Memo to Eileen Rand and Derek Wills: cast Ivy Lynn as Marilyn Monroe.
She deserves the role, as she proved on Wednesday at the opening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at Encores!
We had to wait a little while to learn that. First came the “Jule Styne Overture” (and there’s no better kind). When “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” began, many audience members turned to their companions and beamed. Here was a song they knew and liked. This was going to be a good time!
When a never-better Rachel York came out as Dorothy Shaw, she looked happy as could be to be back in a first-class production. And this Gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, is a production. While each successive Encores! seems to rely more on memorization than on books, this one had the fewest black binders on stage. There was less reading than you’d find in a contemporary child’s bedroom.
“The more exciting room” – meaning the one that contains the bar -- was mentioned during the rousing opener, “It’s High Time.” Even by then we already knew that City Center, without benefit of any alcohol, would be one of the most exciting rooms in town this night.
Then out came Megan Hilty, the ace performer that the country has come to know as Ivy Lynn on Smash. Would she try to imitate Marilyn Monroe, who, after all, has a history with the property? To be sure, Carol Channing first played Lorelei Lee (and vaulted to stardom for her troubles). Monroe, however, has become far more associated with the role because her film performance is constantly available.
Hilty and director John Rando may well have discussed the possibility of doing Lorelei a la Monroe. If they did, they wisely chose otherwise. Hilty’s Lorelei was a bubblehead worthy of Little Annie Fanny from Playboy in the ‘60s. After singing that she “never bought a share of stock,” she batted her eyes twice to punctuate the line. She said every dumb-blonde answer as if she were displaying impeccable logic. Whenever a visitor knocked on her stateroom door, she smiled out at us and said “Entrez!” as if to say, “See how I’ve learned French? And I know I got it right!”
Her walk involved highly exaggerated, mincing little steps, almost as if her ankles were cuffed. That meant that Hilty had to do the seemingly impossible: when she was center stage, she had to go offstage and retrieve a tiara. That meant that Hilty had to spend a near half-minute walking to the wings and off-stage – and then another near half-minute returning to where she’d started. This could have been terribly boring, but Hilty got chuckles every step of the way.
Lest Lorelei seem to be a mere stock character, bookwriters Anita Loos and Joseph Fields were careful to add an important component to her psyche. It came when she met rich Philadelphia Main Liner Henry Spofford. Yes, Lorelei seductively said, “I’ve heard nothing but things about you,” (sic), but soon we saw that she’d already and immediately earmarked him for Dorothy. So Lorelei wasn’t a simple man-eater who devoured every male in sight, but a good friend who immediately took herself out of the running in order for her pal to find happiness. Hilty made this surprising aspect of Lorelei seem utterly logical.
Let’s not fail to notice the titanic laugh Hilty got when telling about her upbringing in Little Rock. When she mentioned that she “was reared” there, she somehow managed to sound as if she were describing anal intercourse while still maintaining her innocence. Now if that’s not an achievement, I don’t know what is.
But Hilty wasn’t the whole show. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes demands a great deal of dancing, as did all shows in the era when tired businessmen wanted to see leggy showgirls strut their stuff. Randy Skinner’s choreography was so sensational that even exhausted businessmen and businesswomen had to become alert.
It started with the aptly named “I Love What I’m Doing,” in which York led a group of Olympians who eventually shed their shirts, perhaps not out of the on-stage heat. If they were merely eye-candy, life has never been as good as this box of chocolates. After the number ended, the applause and cheers were tumultuous. If there’s ever been a stronger reaction at any Encores! I can’t recall what it’s been.
We must blame the original authors and choreographer Agnes de Mille for a very strange dance number. At first, Lorelei and Sir Francis Beekman sing how “It’s Delightful Down in Chile,” and we accept it as a song between them. But suddenly they exit and the stage is filled with males in straw hats and females in flowered headdresses doing another South American-inspired dance. Where did these people come from after Lorelei and Beekman’s private moment? If Skinner hadn’t delivered something so winning, it would have really seemed genuinely bizarre.
After Aaron Lazar, playing Henry, stressed the virtues of “Sunshine,” the ensemble returned with more sizzling steps. This was, by the way, the same Aaron Lazar who’d played the cocksure Carl Magnus in the recent A Little Night Music revival – now unrecognizable as Dorothy’s shy, inexperienced and perhaps even virginal love interest. How funny he was, too, when telling Dorothy about “two schools of thought” as his eyes were drawn to her two breasts. Actually, the lanky Lazar resembles someone who had a nice relationship with another member of the female sex named Dorothy: Ray Bolger.
Although Dorothy and Henry’s relationship proceeded with little complication, Lorelei and her beloved Gus (a fine Clarke Thorell) had a misunderstanding. But it turned out to be a not-at-all ill wind that blew quite a bit of good for Gloria, whom Gus decided to sponsor at a French nightclub. Yes, it’s a hokey plot device and an all-too-convenient excuse to jack-hammer in another dance number. But considering what Megan Sikora, not to mention her “boys” Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes, did with this irrelevant scene, we were awfully glad they did.
What a shame that Encores! isn’t eligible for Tonys. Skinner, who reportedly did a good deal of the original 42nd Street when Gower Champion was near death, would easily win this year’s prize.
Styne and his excellent lyricist Leo Robin must have known they had winners in “Little Girl from Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” for they purposely wrote one encore for the former and two for the latter. After “Diamonds,” which Hilty socked in front of a glitzy curtain, the audience members applauded wildly and still were still clapping when the curtain lifted to start the next scene. As soon as Hilty walked on, the theatregoers upped the applause and wouldn’t stop it even after a good 20 seconds. Hilty could do nothing but bask in the knowledge that she was literally stopping the show. She had to stay put for about another 20 seconds more as the applause continued.
Some of that may have had to do with her delivery of “Diamonds.” Despite the cutesy-poo approach Hilty had been giving Lorelei all night long, she suddenly dropped the act. Now she came down to hard brass tacks on how a young woman cannot depend on those “goddamn liars” that are also known as men. Yes, she was still Lorelei. No, she was not Monroe. But Ivy Lynn also came to mind.
Truth to tell, we would see a little Marilyn Monroe in Hilty – but only when she turned and showed us her profile. Yes, there is a resemblance. Nevertheless, you can’t fault her for that. If I were Karen Cartwright or even Rebecca Duvall, I’d be very worried about my future. — Peter Filichia